In an absolutely mesmerizing performance, Black Sunday stars Barbara Steele as Asa Vajda, a beautiful woman tortured and executed as a witch--but not before pronouncing a curse upon those who have condemned her, a curse that is fulfilled some 200 years later.
Like the special-effects sequence where a 200-year-old corpse slowly regains its flesh, traditional Hollywood horror imagery merges with the visual creativity of modern filmmakers in Mario Bava's 'Black Sunday.' Released during the early period of what's commonly considered the golden era of Italian gothic horror, Bava's first solo directorial effort was a particularly gruesome and graphic motion picture for the time, and it stirred quite the controversy. Nevertheless, the director, who had been working as a cinematographer for over two decades prior, immerses his audience in a hauntingly exquisite Baroque atmosphere that's as beautifully hypnotic and romantic as it is overtly spooky and eerily fantastical.
Permeating the screen with rolling fogs through dilapidated cemeteries and the cobweb-infested cathedral ruins of ancient castles, Bava unabashedly takes inspiration from Hollywood classics, such as Browning's 'Dracula' and Whale's 'The Bride of Frankenstein.' Pushing in and out, slowly moving side to side, dolly shots quickly become a notable favorite within the film. Bava makes several long takes using this technique to stunning effectiveness, lingering in one area for long periods of time, allowing the frame to appreciate the magnificent set design of Giorgio Giovannini. He's paying homage to those benchmark models while also desiring to humbly surpass them with his own expressive style.
And a graceful and masterful one it is. Working from a screenplay by Ennio de Concini and Mario Serandrei, the director blurs the line between fact and fiction, science and myth. The one night they try to rest before continuing on their trip to a medical conference, Dr. Thomas Kruvajan (Andrea Checchi) and Dr. Andre Gorobec (John Richardson) are confronted by the unexplainable supernatural happenings of a small Moldavian village. Believing a two-hundred-year-old curse from a witch nothing more than a fairytale, it's not long until Kruvajan falls under her vampiric spell and Gorobec is left to fight her alone. Bava, again, shows this struggle in elaborately mesmerizing sequences that are surprisingly spine-chilling while also genuinely captivating and evocative.
Loosely inspired by a short story from Russian realist Nikolai Gogol, the film also uses two typical staples of the gothic genre: family curses and romance. Amid this battle to stop the resurrection of the witch Asa Vajda (Barbara Steele in her breakthrough role), Gorobec falls hopelessly (and overdramatically) in love with the beautiful Princess Katia (Steele). In having her be a descendent of the witch, the plot falls victim to a few clichéd moments and becomes quite the predictable melodrama. Yet, Bava's elaborate and sometimes gory visuals keep the whole affair steady and wonderfully entertaining. After all these years, this gorgeous atmospheric gem still manages to amaze and delight.
Besides, the opening sequence is usually more than enough to shock viewers into watching further, wanting to see where Bava could take it next. It's a memorable, ghastly scene showing Asa sentenced to die by her own brother and a black-hooded executioner hammers a metallic mask with spikes in the inside onto her face, thereby imprecating the family lineage. In fact, the film's original title, 'The Mask of Satan,' is derived from this particular scene. Showcasing a wealth of stylistic and energetic camera angles with hauntingly Baroque atmospherics, 'Black Sunday' is Bava at his finest, and the film is a true classic of Italian gothic horror which astonishes with a mix of evocative visuals and gore.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Kino Classics brings Mario Bava's 'Black Sunday' to Blu-ray on a Region A locked, BD25 disc inside a standard blue keepcase. At startup, viewers are taken straight to the main menu with a still photo of the cover art and music playing in the background.
'Black Sunday' comes to Blu-ray with a mostly clean and great-looking 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode. Presented in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio, the black-and-white image shows lots of sharp details in the costumes and architecture of the old village. Despite many beautifully photographed scenes of rolling fogs and mist, we can clearly make out the fine lines in and around various objects. There are several moments of softness and blurriness, however, but they likely stem from the original cinematography. Black levels are rich and penetrating with excellent gradations between the darker and lighter portions of the image. Contrast is generally crisp and well-balanced, but highlights tend to appear hotter than normal, which can take away some from the finer details. White specks and dirt also pop-up sporadically, which means little effort was made to restore the film to its former glory, yet it's the best it has ever looked.
The classic of Italian gothic horror also hits high-def video with a strong but also slightly flawed English uncompressed PCM mono soundtrack. Ignoring the obvious, sometimes distracting ADR work, dialogue reproduction is clean, intelligible and is the best aspect of the entire presentation. Unfortunately, the rest lacks a sense of presence and spaciousness, feeling largely constrained in the center. This is made all the worse with a limited and uniform dynamic range. There's noticeable clipping and distortion in the upper frequencies, and some pieces of music even come off a bit too bright. Small pops and light hissing can also be heard in the background, but for the most part, the lossless mix is a tolerable listen.
Mario Bava made his first solo directorial effort with 'Black Sunday,' a macabre supernatural fable about witches, family curses and overcoming the forces of evil. Demonstrating his visual skills and creative genius, the film is the quintessential Bava and a true classic of Italian gothic horror. The Blu-ray arrives with a very good picture quality and a slightly less-than-satisfying audio presentation. Supplements are also a bit disappointing, but the overall package is still worth a look.